Ben’s previous post was an effort to highlight the “personal agenda” behind Parley Pratt’s writing of his Autobiography. He outlined two chief forces behind its production: Parley’s desires (conscious or not) to relive and revive his preeminent influence in the Church, and to give a revisionist account of its history more favorable and forgiving to himself. To those two well-reasoned general motives, I would like to add a third fundamental impetus – one that was relatively unique to Parley as an individual.
When approaching Parley’s writings, especially his curious Autobiography, it is important to recognize that he saw himself as part of the literary world. From the time that he published his first collection of poems and hymns in 1835, Parley was consciously embarked in a literary career. As a child he had clamored for “a book! a book!” at every moment of leisure; as an adult he converted his enthusiasm for literary consumption into literary practice. His writings suggest that he was both conscious and fond of the elevated tradition in which he was participating. He realized that in writing he was contributing both intellectually and artistically to the public sphere. He took up his pen in earnest.
If we attempted to associate Parley with a literary movement, he would come down squarely in the Romantic camp. Before turning to religious themes (which obscure his Romantic tendencies), his poetry was sentimental, introspective, and interested in nature and the sublime. In 1836 on his way to preach in Canada he stopped to behold Niagara Falls. Later in prison, he would recall the memory of this impressive visit to write his “The Falls of Niagara” (reprinted in the Autobiography). At the time, the Falls were a touchstone for Romantic culture – a “gateway to transcendence on the grandest scale imaginable,” or, in Parley’s words “a lively emblem of eternity.” They became a symbol of the great scale and awesomeness of the American landscape. Scores of Romantics such as Margaret Fuller made the same pilgrimage Parley did, and versified similar epiphanies. While different literary trends began forming in Victorian Britain, Romanticism lingered in America.
In the microculture of Mormonism, Parley’s literary efforts flourished. Mormonism gave him a ready set of themes with which he could write and experiment. Using these, he ventured – in literary fashion – through a variety of genres, from poetry, hymnody, and essay to drama, satire, polemics, history, theological treatise…and finally to autobiography. Although much or most of what Parley wrote was didactic, he did not see the orientation of these writings as preventing them from being his own “literary” works and part of an independent corpus. He claimed both their authorship and the prestige of their publication, carefully ensuring that he obtained a copyright for each.
In addition to topics and themes, Mormonism provided Parley with a ready and supportive audience and a public to represent. Having elevated himself to a degree of education through study, Parley joined the ranks of a small Mormon intellectual elite. In a concentrated Mormon society, as in the larger general one, literary activity brought regard and social standing, and Parley eagerly embraced his position as a microcultural leader. He shared this standing with a few other lettered Saints, including his brother Orson, William W. Phelps, and eventually Eliza R. Snow. In his mind, this social position probably blended with his ecclesiastical office as an Apostle. His authority was at once literary/intellectual and ecclesiastical.
If, as Ben suggested, Pratt employed the Autobiography as a tool for renewing and remaking himself as part of the Mormon past, he may have been inspired by his literary counterparts. Autobiography as a distinct genre was a new development of the late eighteenth century. It became established (particularly in Britain) as the Romantic emphasis on individualism drove the reading public to call for more personal details about their leading figures. In fact, it has been observed that the rise of biography and autobiography is “one of the most significant features of the literary culture that defines the Romantic movement.” Literary notables (like Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) used popular interest to their advantage by producing autobiographical accounts of themselves intended to enlarge their public stature and mythologize their pasts. Moreover, Romantic writers were particularly afflicted with the longing to immortalize themselves both in print and in the public memory. This particular use of the genre was in some ways different from the way that autobiography had been used previously in Britain and the way it was being used in contemporary America. In these other contexts, autobiography was typically used for social commentary and criticism, not public relations.
Recognizing that Parley regarded himself as part of the literary tradition and as a public intellectual helps us understand that his decision to compose an autobiography grew (at least partially) out of this sense of self. Parley’s conception of the Autobiography – quite unusual in America at the time – seems related to contemporary trends of self-making in Romantic literature. As a self-styled literatus, Pratt would have seen such a project as quite becoming. After all, an autobiography was the natural capstone to a Romantic writer’s life.
 Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography…, eds. Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Procton (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 4.
 Susan Manning, “Americas” in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. Nicholas Roe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 151; Pratt, Autobiography, 165; See Parley’s account of the experience. Ibid., 166-168.
 Anthony Harding, “Biography and Autobiography” in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. Nicholas Roe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 28.
 See Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
 The few works of early (pre-1850) British autobiography are virtually all used to lodge social commentary. They include Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative (1789) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s autobiographical Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). American autobiographers up until the late 19th century mostly followed suit. Such writings include the narratives of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861). Benjamin Franklin (1793) was a notable exception to this pattern.